It all started with the parsnips. You can start them in summer here and leave them be, and they keep growing slowly through the dark Irish winters. By spring – the hungry season for most farming people – they are big as a man’s leg, a fact that must have saved many lives in generations past. Thing was, when I wrestled them out of the black mud that winter, we had to do something with them, and neither of us were overly hungry or fond of parsnips. So I made wine.
If you buy your booze from a store, “wine” refers only to grapes, but you can make wine or beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones. I make wine each year from whatever is in season – nettles, oxlip, meadowsweet, hawthorn, elderflower, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, crab-apples, beetroots or dandelions – and mean to someday try recipes I've found for oak leaf, squash, parsley and cicely. I cannot give enough praise to wine made from meadowsweet, a summer weed with pale, astringent flowers, or oxlip, a delicate yellow flower that appears here in spring.
A few generations ago ,making wine provided not just recreation but survival, as many people had only lake or river water to drink and there were no cures for the many diseases people could catch. The fermenting yeast in wine or beer, however, drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively safe. It also provided calories and vitamins; Medieval Britons are estimated to have drunk four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.
My parsnip-and-ginger wine, however, was a disaster – I find flower wines easy, vegetable wines difficult. When I uncorked it two years later, it had formed a disagreeable blend of flavours, and two more years did nothing to improve it. So I made vinegar.
Vinegar is what happens when bacteria ferments wine to produce acetic acid. I have had wines turn to alcohol naturally, when I didn’t want it – the hawthorn wine was particularly susceptible for some reason – but I had never made vinegar intentionally. Turns out that, like everything else, it takes time.
There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.
I took the middle route myself, buying a few bottles of unpasteurised vinegar from a specialty store in Dublin and mixing it with the wine – about 80 percent wine, 20 percent starter. I left the mix in a clean plastic bucket in our shed – the bacteria like the cool and dark. The bucket was covered but not airtight – bacteria need to breathe just like you do. In about four months, and the failed parsnip wine had started its new life, and we poured it through a coffee filter and bottled it.
People taking the third option have said they covered their wine with cheesecloth, fastened with a rubber band – they were trying to draw bacteria from the air, but keep out bugs and other such pests. My hawthorn wine was in a carboy, accomplishing the same thing.
This was one successful experiment; I'm not saying this will work every time, or that the result will taste good, or that it will always take four months. We let ours sit that long to be on the safe side, as we couldn't measure the change from looking. With our dark red hawthorn wine, a white film formed at the top of the liquid, making the bacteria quite obvious. The parsnip wine did not – perhaps because it was pale and the film was less visible – but after four months we were satisfied with the taste.
Your vinegar will have many uses beyond salad dressings, of course. You can use it to pickle vegetables, make salad dressings, wipe down the furniture, polish brass, disinfect cutting boards, clean out the coffeemaker, scrub pots or take off sticker glue. You can spray on car windows to keep them frost-free, rub it on rugs to remove stains or use it with bicarbonate of soda to unclog drains. In short, you have some useful stuff on your hands, all from your vegetable patch.